On Ireland’s Census, a Blank Box Gives Residents a Chance to Tell Their Stories

DUBLIN — Can the dead talk to the living? In Ireland, the answer now is officially yes — at least through their census forms.

Earlier this month, when around two million households completed their latest population survey, they were allowed to write or draw any message they liked in a blank box at the end. These innovative “time capsules,” as the census makers call them, will be sealed away in the national archive, to be revealed in a hundred year’s time.

Many respondents went online right away with their DMs to the future, posting screen shots of what they had put in the box. Some entries were mischievous, others deeply moving.

Leah Wallace, a physics lecturer at Limerick’s Technological University of the Shannon, was among those who felt compelled to share her time capsule. Using a black ink pen, she wrote that she was thankful that she would be remembered. She posted her entry to Twitter:

“The branch of the family tree I am on dies with me. I am an only child, and have chosen not to have children myself. No one will ever do a genealogy search for me. When I die I will be forgotten, most likely … This time capsule is an opportunity for me to once more have someone say my name, think of me, know that I lived, and that I loved my life.”

Leah Wallace was among those who felt compelled to share her time capsule.

Eileen Murphy, head of census administration at Ireland’s Central Statistics Office, said that the time capsule was believed to be a world first. “We attend international meetings with other census organizations and when we say we are doing this they go, ‘What, really? We haven’t heard of that,’” she said.

The capsule, she said, was the brainchild of Cormac Halpin, senior statistician for census assimilation, and followed public consultations about what kind of questions the 2022 census should ask.

The humanizing element is thought to have further reduced resistance to the government census process, which some find intrusive, in a country where, Ms. Murphy says, compliance is already high by international standards.

One reason for this relative willingness to share personal data with the state, she believes, is that the Irish census still uses paper forms — albeit designed to be machine-readable — and it hires friendly human enumerators to distribute and collect them.

“People in a hundred years will see not only the message but the actual hand writing of the people who wrote it, which is such an intimate detail.,” she said. “The next census in 2027 will be mostly online, but from the reaction we’ve had this time we’ll definitely have to keep something similar in the future. We can maybe use new technologies to allow people to give it that personal touch.”

Amy Dutil-Wall, a Michigan native who emigrated to Ireland 12 years ago, was one of many respondents who used their time capsule to remember loved ones who were away on the night of the census, or who had died and would not be officially counted. She also posted her capsule on Twitter:

“Tonight, as we count those in our house and our family, we are thinking so much of our beloved little girl, Estlin Luna. She was tragically taken from us 5 years ago, just before her 4th birthday, in a car crash. Estlin was our 1st born child and the love of our lives. She was never counted in a census and so we are so relieved to be able to mention her here. She was beautiful, creative, funny, so smart & clever, and confident beyond her years. We were honoured to be her parents and honoured still to grieve her for the rest of our lives. Estlin Luna, we carry you in our hearts — love always, mommy, daddy, Mannix & Lucie.”

Amy Dutil-Wall’s time capsule.

Ms. Dutil-Wall said later in an interview: “Filling out the part of the form about naming the people in the house, it seemed so clear that Estlin should be there too, but she wasn’t. The time capsule let us say how much we loved her and missed her, and it was great to have even that small little thing for people in the future to look back on.”

Ms. Dutil-Wall’s post quickly picked up more than 40,000 likes. One woman in her 60s replied to it, saying that her own first child had been born out of wedlock, and was taken from her for adoption, which had broken her heart. They later found each other again, she wrote, and loved each other dearly.

David Hayden, a Dublin father of two, wrote: “2022 is a concerning time. We have hopefully left Covid behind but it took my youngest sister Alison in 2020. The invasion by Putin of Ukraine is our main worry. The prospect of world war is very real.”

He hoped his daughters’ grandchildren would read the time capsule in “happier, and more peaceful times … We don’t own this planet, we are only minding it for future generations, so look after it!!! P.S. Our children are laughing.”

His daughter Emma, 24, who posted her father’s time capsule on Twitter, said she was particularly pleased to have had her name added to the form, as she left Ireland for London earlier this year, and could not otherwise have been listed with her family.

At the other end of the emotional scale, many jokers were moved to ask posterity if their local sports team had won anything yet. One man posted a screenshot of a message written in the elaborate code used by San Francisco’s mysterious Zodiac killer, who has never been caught for a string of murders in the late 1960s. And another man, signed his time capsule as “Marty,” and warned “Dr. Brown” (both characters in the film “Back to the Future”) that he was about to be murdered by terrorists, and should take steps to protect himself.

Ms. Murphy said that some census filers had gotten creative.

“Some people have put their baby’s hand prints on the form, and you’d wonder if their child will still be alive in a hundred years to see it again,” she said. “Some people have buried physical time capsules in secret places, and used the census time capsule to draw a map showing where it’s hidden. The Irish have always been storytellers, and this is projecting that into the future. I think it’s really caught fire in people’s imaginations.”

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